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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


In antiquity, those who sailed utilized stones as the earliest anchoring devices. As anchors found on the seabed assume the passing of a ship, these stones provide valuable clues about ancient routes and seafaring practices. Defining the nationalities of stone anchor types can thus lead researchers to determining the range and directions of ancient seafarers. A ship's home port also may be identifiable from the anchors it carried.

As the last hope for a storm-tossed ship, anchors also took on a religious significance—and many have been found in temples and other cultic locations. Because anchors found on the seabed are unlikely to have a stratigraphic context, their dating depends largely on anchors found at archaeologically excavated land sites.

Stone Anchors.

Along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze and the Iron Ages, anchor stones were pierced to secure the hawsers (ropes). Typologically, pierced-stone anchors fall into three categories: weight anchors, in which the stone's weight acts as the anchoring device; sand anchors, which are relatively light-weight and contain one or more additional piercings to secure wooden slats that grasp the seabed; and composite anchors, which hold the seabed both by means of their weight and by wooden “arms” inserted through additional piercings.

Stone anchors are often asymmetrical. Erect anchors positioned at the bow are sometimes depicted in illustrations of seagoing ships in Old Kingdom Egypt. This design may have permitted the anchors to stand upright on a tilting deck. If so, bars must have been used to lock them in place against the bulwarks to prevent their shifting in heavy seas.

Although the heaviest recorded Bronze Age stone anchor, from Kition, weighs 1,350 kg, it is unlikely to have been used at sea. [See Kition.] Half-ton stone anchors found on the Mediterranean sea floor probably indicate the upper limits of functional weight. How such heavy anchors were raised without a capstan is unclear. Two seventh-century BCE Cypriot jugs depict the handling of stone anchors (figure 1). One scene shows the anchor's hawser going through a sheave at the top of the mast, while the other seems to be an explodedview of a similar operation. Alternately, cargo derricks may have been used for maneuvering anchors.


ANCHORS. Figure 1. Depiction of a figure on a ship handling a stone anchor. Painting from a seventh-century BCE Cypriot jug. (After Karageorghis and des Gagniers, 1974, p. 123, no. 11.2)

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Ancient ships employed a complement of anchors. The Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Turkey carried twenty-four weight anchors, totaling more than 4 tons. Two-thirds of the ship's anchors were stationed at the bow, while the remainder had been stowed amidships. [See Uluburun.] A group of fifteen Byblian anchors, undoubtedly from a single ship, were found in Israel at Neveh Yam. Curiously, only one anchor has been found on the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck off Turkey, perhaps indicating that not all of the ship has been located. [See Cape Gelidonya.]

Studies in the typologies of Bronze Age stone anchors have permitted the differentiation of several regional types. Egyptian anchors often have a second, L-shaped piercing near the anchor's base, perhaps for the attachment of a line with a float to indicate the anchor's location on the sea bed (see below). Examples have been found at Mirgissa on the Upper Nile River, at Wadi Gawasis on Egypt's Red Sea coast, and as far afield as Byblos in Lebanon and Ugarit in Syria.

Stone anchors abound underwater along Israel's Mediterranean coast. Several anchors from the Carmel coast bear markings, some in relief. The earliest datable stone, anchorlike objects in the Near East are shfifonim (Heb., “vipers”), found in the region immediately south of the Sea of Galilee. [See Shfifonim.] Numerous stone anchors have also been found at Byblos and Ugarit. Among those found at Byblos were several that have a distinctly triangular shape. Although anchors with this shape are commonly termed Byblian, the majority have been found in Israeli waters (figure 2).

Cyprus is rich in stone anchors—147 were found at Kition alone. Few stone anchors have been recovered from Turkish waters, however, and they are so rare in the Aegean Sea that a different form of anchoring device may have been in use there. Aegean Bronze Age cultures may have employed kil-liks—devices that use undressed stones as weights forwooden anchoring devices. Once the wood disintegrated, the anchor-stone would be indistinguishable from other stones (see below). On Crete, some stone anchors have been found at Mallia and Kommos. An anchor-shaped porphyry stone from Knossos, with a relief carving of an octopus, may have been a weight, or a cultic object. It is unlikely to have ever been employed at sea.


ANCHORS. Figure 2. Stone anchor. Byblian anchor found in the ancient harbor of Dor, in Tantura Lagoon, Israel. (Courtesy S. Wachsmann)

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Small stone anchors have continued in use into modern times. Large stone anchors—those that required more than one person to handle them—apparently went out of use as new types of anchors were introduced, toward the end of the Iron Age.

Wooden Anchors.

Dramatic changes in anchor shape probably occurred toward the end of the seventh century BCE when the word ankura (“bent”) first appears in Greek texts (Kapitän, 1984; pp. 33–36). Four types of wooden anchor stocks were used in the Greco-Roman period (figure 3): stone (type I); wood with lead cores (II); lead (III), occasionally with wooden cores (C), and removable lead stocks (IV). Lead stocks continued to be known as stones long after their typological forebears fell into disuse (Durrbach and Roussel, 1926–1935, vol. 1, 443.92, vol. 3; 1417, pp. 163–65).

In general, Greeks used stone-stocked anchors (type I), whereas Romans used solid lead (type III) stocks. Type II represents a transition from stone to lead stocks, and type IV a more drastic change from wooden anchors to iron anchors. Both transitions were products of historical and technological developments. Stone stocks often broke on rocky sea bottoms. Lead-cored wooden stocks were not as fragile, but their number was directly linked to the supply of lead. Lead was in short supply until the late third-century BCE, when the Romans gained control of rich Spanish silver mines and produced silver, and its by-product, lead, on a grand scale. When the price of lead fell, type-III solid-lead stocks appeared almost simultaneously. Type-IV removable stocks are frequently found in the eastern Mediterranean. These collapsible anchors were designed for an economy of space and suggest the use of smaller ships. The versatile removable-stock wooden anchors heralded increasing use of removable-stock iron anchors.

Greeks called anchors hanging gear (probably because they hung from bows and sterns [Casson, 1971, p. 265]), stays (Athanaeus, Diepnosophists 3.99D), or even holders (Lucian, Lex. 15). The largest anchor was the “sacred anchor” which was thrown in times of desperation (Lucian, Jup. Trag. 51). Roman authors made more specific references to anchor parts. Arms (figure 3.3) or even entire anchors were known as hooks (Virgil, Aeneid 1.169.3). The conical iron or bronze caps that reinforced arm ends (figure 3.2) were called teeth (Livy 37.30.9–10), because of their toothlike shape, or claws (Plutarch, de mul. 8.247E).

Pliny credited invention of the one-armed anchor to Eupalamus and of the two-armed anchor to Anacharsis (Nat. Hist. 7.56.209). References like Pliny's were thought apocryphal until a reinforcement collar (figure 3.4) for a one-armed anchor was found near Brindisi, Italy (Kapitän, 1984; Rosloff, 1991). One-armed iron anchors also existed (P. Lond. 1164h 11.7–11).

Scholars learned more about anchor arm construction with the discovery of a fragmentary anchor on the Chrétienne “C” wreck (Joncheray, 1975). Arms were bound fastened to anchor shanks with Z-shaped hook joints that were, in turn, secured by mortise-and-tenon joints (figure 3.5). Pegs placed perpendicularly through tenons in anchor arms locked them in position. When arm/shank joints loosened with wear, reinforcement collars (figure 3.4) poured onto anchors held the anchor arms in position (Haldane, 1986).

Pliny records cork floats on lines used to mark an anchor's location on the sea bottom (Nat. Hist. 16.13.34). These lines, tied to wooden-anchor crown notches (figure 3.6) or iron anchor crown rings, also freed anchors stuck in the sea-bed.

Iron Anchors.

Herodotus (9.74) makes the first recorded reference to iron anchors in the early fifth century BCE. Iron was scarce, however, and iron anchors do not commonly appear on shipwrecks until the first century CE. As iron-working technology developed in the Mediterranean, the use of wooden anchors diminished.

The first conclusive evidence of anchor manufacture to predetermined specifications can be seen in iron anchors. The first-century CE iron anchor found at Lake Nemi, Italy,has its weight inscribed in Roman pounds on its shank (Speziale, 1931). The anchor complement of the seventh-century CE Yassıada Byzantine shipwreck found off the coast of Turkey may have ranged from smallest to largest in increments of 50 Roman pounds (Bass and van Doorninck, 1982, p. 134). [See Yassıada Wrecks.]


ANCHORS. Figure 3. Wooden anchors. Stock types for wooden anchors. Type I is a stone stock; Type II is a wood stock with a lead core; Type III stocks are lead; Type IV stocks have removable lead cores. The pieces of the Type III anchor are numbered: (1) shank; (2) teeth; (3) arm; (4) reinforcement collar; (5) mortise and tenon joints; (6) crown. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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Anchor arm configurations also show a progressive evolution. Iron anchor arms first imitated the sharp V pattern of wooden anchors but gradually relaxed to the lunate shape of the Nemi iron anchor (B); they continue to open from the first to the fourth centuries CE in the Dramont D and F anchors. The cruciform shape of the seventh-century Yassıada anchors reflects the christianization of the Roman Empire. Anchor arm angles relative to shanks increased until they reached the Y shape of the eleventh-century Serçe Limanı anchors. [See Serçe Limanı.]

Increasingly unstable economic and political conditions in the medieval Mediterranean dictated the use of smaller, faster ships. Deck space was at a premium, and the use of durable, removable-stock iron anchors aboard ships became the rule.

[See also Ships and Boats.]


  • Frost, Honor. “The Stone Anchors of Ugarit.” Ugaritica 6 (1969a): 235–245.
  • Frost, Honor. “The Stone Anchors of Byblos.” Mélanges de l'Université Saint-Joseph 45 (1969b): 425–442.
  • Frost, Honor. “Anchors, the Potsherds of Marine Archaeology: On the Recording of Pierced Stones from the Mediterranean.” In Marine Archaeology: Proceedings of the XXIII Symposium of the Colston Research Society Held in the University of Bristol, April 4th to 8th, 1971, edited by D. J. Blackman, pp. 397–406. Colston Papers, no. 32. London, 1973.
  • Frost, Honor. “Egypt and Stone Anchors: Some Recent Discoveries.” Mariner's Mirror 65 (1979): 137–161.
  • Frost, Honor. “Appendix I: The Kition Anchors.” In Excavations at Kition 5, vol. 1, The Pre-Phoenician Levels, Areas I and II, edited by Vassos Karageorghis and Martha Demas, pp. 281–321, pls. A–N. Nicosia, 1986.
  • Frost, Honor. “Anchors Sacred and Profane: Ugarit–Ras Shamra, 1986, the Stone Anchors Revised and Compared.” In Arts et industries de la pierre, edited by Marguerite Yon, pp. 355–410. Ras Shamra–Ougarit, 6. Paris, 1991.
  • Galili, Ehud. “A Group of Stone Anchors from Newe-Yam.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 14 (1985): 143–153.
  • Galili, Ehud, and Kurt Raveh. “Stone Anchors with Carvings from the Sea off Megadim.” Sefunim 7 (1988): 41–47, pl. 5.
  • Karageorghis, Vassos, and Jean des Gagniers. La céramique chypriote de style figuré, Âge du fer (1050–500 Av. J.-C.). Rome, 1974.
  • Sayed, A. M. A. H. “Discovery of the Site of the Twelfth-Dynasty Port at Wadi Gawasis on the Red Sea Shore.” Revue d'Égyptologie 29 (1977): 138–178.
  • Wachsmann, Shelley. Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. College Station, Texas, in press.

Stone Anchors

Wood and Iron Anchors

  • Babbitt, Frank C., trans. Plutarch's Moralia. Vol. 3: 172a–263c. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1961.
  • Bass, George F., and Frederick H. van Doorninck, Jr. Yassi Ada, vol. 1, A Seventh-Century Byzantine Shipwreck. College Station, Texas, 1982.
  • Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton, 1971. Definitive work on ancient ships and seafaring.
  • Durrbach, Félix, and Pierre Roussel. Inscriptions de Delos. Vols. 1 and 3. Paris, 1926–1935.
  • Godley, Alfred D., trans. Herodotus. Vol. 4, Books 8–9. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1924.
  • Gulick, C. B., trans. Athanaeus: The Deipnosophists. Vol. 1, Books 1–3. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1927.
  • Haldane, Douglas. “Wooden Anchor Arm Construction.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 15 (1986): 163–166.
  • Harmon, Austin M., trans. Lucian. Vol. 5. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1936.
  • Harmon, Austin M., trans. Lucian. Vol. 2. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.
  • Joncheray, J.-P. “L'épave ‘C’ de la chrétienne.” Cahiers d'Archéologie Subaquatique, supp. 1 (1975).
  • Kapitän, Gerhard. “Ancient Anchors: Technology and Classification.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 13 (1984): 33–44.
  • Kenyon, Frederic, and H. Idris Bell. Greek Papyri in the British Museum. Vol. 3. London, 1907.
  • Rackham, Harris, trans. Pliny: Natural History. Vol. 2, Books 3–7. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1942.
  • Rackham, Harris, trans. Pliny: Natural History. Vol. 4, Books 12–16. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1945.
  • Rosloff, Jay. “A One-Armed Anchor of c. 400 B.C.E. from Ma'agan Michael Vessel, Israel: A Preliminary Report.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 20.3 (1991): 223–226.
  • Sage, E. T., trans. Livy: From the Founding of the City. Vol. 10, Books 35–37. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1935.
  • Speziale, G. C. “The Roman Anchors Found at Nemi.” Mariner's Mirror 17 (1931): 300–320.

Shelley Wachsmann and Douglas Haldane

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